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July 1, 2014

Dire Dwellings and Vile Venues

I had a long wait at a doctor’s office the other day, long enough so that – oh horror! – I actually finished the book I had in my bag. This was a disaster. I mean, there’s only so many times a woman can read the pamphlet on Mount Sinai Hospital: Serving the Community. I would have stormed off in a huff, but it had taken me weeks on weeks to get this appointment. Finally I threw myself in the mercy of the receptionist: Did she by any chance have something I could read?

She did! She had a tattered paperback of ‘Salem’s Lot. As you may remember, I am something of a late convert to Mr. King’s fan club (and not an entirely full-throated one; I liked The Shining enormously, but hated The Stand). I got through the first 60 pages or so of ‘Salem’s Lot before I was finally ushered into the inner sanctum, and after returning it – with heartfelt thanks – to the receptionist, I bought a Kindle edition so I could find out What Happened Next.

Well, grisly death and awful stuff, of course – this is Stephen King. I’m still only halfway through, but can say that I don’t love it. However, there are some things about the book that are piquing my interest. Chief among them is Marsten House, a long-abandoned mansion on a bluff that looms over the town of ‘Salem’s Lot “like a dark idol.” That’s a nice image. Ok, “nice” may not be the best word here: It’s a haunting, evocative image (better), even if it does put me in mind of one of the world’s great pieces of doggerel:

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu;
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(“The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” by J. Milton Hayes, c. 1911)

What interests me is that it is the house that is the evil Yellow God, not the two gentlemen who have come to live there. They’re not exactly swell fellas, but their malevolence pales by comparison with that of Marsten House, which exudes corruption the way new-sawn pine boards sweat sap.

That concept, by which it is the building that is star of the dark drama, with any people associated with the building strictly secondary players, is pretty common to scary fiction. The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, of course, is pretty much the textbook example, and ‘Salem’s Lot explicitly references Hill House (see Jackson, Shirley; The Haunting of): “Whatever walked there, walked alone.” Sarah Rayne’s books are thick with malignant buildings, from the vile orphanage in A Dark Dividing to the echoing, empty manor house of What Lies Beneath.

And yet it’s not a given, in horror fiction, that the building gets the leading role. Halloran House is indeed at the center of Jackson’s shuddery The Sundial, but in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final novel, there is no sense that the Blackwood family’s crumbling house (the “castle”) is in any way responsible for their grisly woes. Horrible things happen in houses in Ghost Story and Shadowland, both by Peter Straub, but a reader doesn’t come away believing that the buildings themselves called evil into being. Both Castel Dracula and the Theatres des Vampires (from Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles”) may be home to all kinds of horror, but given a little time and a plumbing update, they’d make killer boutique hotels. Marsten House, on the other hand? Its only decent future lies in fire. Burn that mother to the ground, and sow salt in the ashes.

I think what interests me most about all these Horrible Houses, Dire Dwellings, and Vile Venues is that I have no experience to connect them to. Was King traumatized in childhood by some local building, like Scout and Jem and the Radley House (see Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird)? Did the young Sarah Rayne live someplace that was…infected? The closest I come to that kind of experience …well, two things come to mind. I remember seeing one of the films of “Jane Eyre” when I was very young, and being badly frightened by the shadowy hallways of the Lowood School. And many years later, I worked on the 11th floor of a big New York skyscraper: My pals and I referred to the 16th floor as the “Death Star.” The elevator did stop there, but the door would open only partway, just wide enough to display a floor’s worth of empty offices that had been stripped back to the stained concrete, liquid dripping unpleasantly from pipes half-wrenched from the wall, the only illumination a couple of naked bulbs that were always, somehow, swaying crazily in a breeze that wasn’t there. We weren’t really scared but we enjoyed pretending to be.

So I have never had a real experience of building (or office or theater or storage closet) that frightened me. Have you?



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